Depending on how you count them, the Gospel writers document around 40 parables that Jesus told. In some—like the parable of the mustard seed—the message is clear. Others can be a little more tricky to navigate.
Sometimes we struggle with a parable because we're not sure which elements we should focus on. A good example of this is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Here Jesus offers a parable about the great reversal that's coming at the end of the age. But if we're not careful, we can assume that Jesus is teaching us exactly what the afterlife looks like.
The parable of the ten virgins is another tricky parable. The message is so simple that readers tend to get bogged down in the details.
Let's take a look at this significant teaching.
The parable of the 10 virgins
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out: "Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!"
Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out."
"No," they replied, "there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves."
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
Later the others also came. "Lord, Lord," they said, "open the door for us!"
But he replied, "Truly I tell you, I don't know you."
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour (Matthew 25:1–13).
The listeners would be familiar with the background of this parable. The bride and her bridesmaids would wait at the bride's home for the groom to arrive. This usually occurred after dark, and there would be a long procession of dancing and celebration that led to the main event.
For some reason, the groom was running late, and the wedding procession fell asleep. When the herald announced at midnight that the groom was on his way, it caught many of the bridesmaids unaware. They discovered that they didn't have enough oil to keep their small lamps burning. So they asked the more prudent bridesmaids to borrow some of theirs, but the wiser women didn't want to run out of oil, too.
So the unprepared bridesmaids were sent to purchase more oil. While they were gone, the groom arrived, and the wedding procession was forced to go on with five bridesmaids instead of 10. This would have been a considerable embarrassment to the wedding party.
Typically, everyone in the village would have been invited to the wedding feast. But Jesus tells us that they barred the door and refused entrance to the foolish virgins. In fact, the groom denies that he even knows them.
Keeping ourselves ready
One of the main ways that people lose this parable's thread is in attempting to attach too much significance to the details. For instance, people often focus on what the oil is supposed to represent. Is the oil supposed to represent the Spirit? Purity? Faith? Sometimes these elements become a sort of Rorschach test that reveals more about the interpreter than the Scripture.
Thankfully, Jesus sums up the parable's meaning for us clearly, "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." The simple message of this parable is one that Jesus touched on again and again:
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matthew 24:44, see also Luke 12:40).
Heeding Jesus's words
We should take this parable to heart. We are the bridesmaids waiting for our Groom to appear and lead us to a royal wedding. When He arrives, will He find our lamps trimmed and burning? Or will He find that we've fallen asleep, assuming He wouldn't come during our watch?
Pray today that He finds us awake and ready for Him, striving to do the work He's commissioned us to do.